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Saturday, July 8, 2023

Jazz royalty calls in to provide red-hot Eisteddfod concert

For one night only, the International Pavilion stage was transformed into an intimate New Orleans jazz club – minus the smoke – when the Guy Barker Big Band came to call.

The formidable assembly of top-drawer talent headlined the Eisteddfod’s Friday evening concert ably assisted by a star line-up of guest performers who really are modern day jazz royalty.

Initially formed as a septet in 2001 for the Mercury Award-nominated album of legendary trumpeter Barker, the band went on to become residents for Cheltenham Jazz Festival, opening the London Jazz Festival, performing at the BBC Proms, hosting the annual Royal Albert Hall’s Big Band Christmas, and much more besides.

Deploying punchy brass and New Orleans soul, they led us on a journey through the history of jazz song, featuring both classics and surprise new arrangements.

Setting the tone of lots of hot music for a hot night the band opened with old standard I Can’t Stop Loving You with Baker setting the direction on trumpet.

Guest singers Vanessa Haynes and Clare Teal soon jumped aboard to show how things were going to get even better, with former Van Morrison vocalist Haynes’s contribution including a honeyed I’m Going Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key.

Teal laid on some similar masterpieces in the same vein and also slotted into her role as the evening’s entertaining MC.

Next to stop by was the rare talent of Giacomo Smith, a native New Yorker now based in the UK who has rapidly become recognised as one of the most distinct and versatile performers on the London jazz scene.

If you’ve ever watched Strictly Come Dancing on the TV and marvelled at the versatility of sheer musical ability of the man who provides it you’ll know all about Tommy Blaize but to see him in the flesh in Llangollen was a real thrill.

An early sample of his smooth style came with a laid-back Careless Love.

After Teal came back with a scat-laden version of Let’s Fall in Love the band stepped things up even higher with Barker’s own crazy yet masterful arrangement of  Tom Waits’s Temptation, a marvellous concoction of brassy blaring and guitar twanging fun.

We were back in New Orleans in the sixties as Haynes gave us a soul-fuelled Mean Man, first made popular by Betsy Harris in the day.

We went even further back in the New Orleans jazz annals as Smith led a number called High Society – not the Frank Sinatra one – on his fantastic clarinet to close the first half of the show.

After the break Smith returned to lead the band, assisted by a blaring solo trumpet, as it headed on through a superb version of Rocking in Rhythm.

Teal did an intricately jazzed-up version of Singing in the Rain followed by a highlight of the whole night – Smith providing the haunting clarinet-based pace for the old Midnight in Paris which was totally evocative of the hot jazz club days of the City of Lights.

There was much more from the assembled singing talent, including Blaize with Can’t Stay Away from the Door and Woman from Haynes, by which point came the first signs of dancing from somewhere in front of the audience.  

Things came almost to a head with a driving, sizzling Tiger Rag, with Smith and his clarinet in the driving seat, and finally rounding off with all three singers lending a skilful hand on Jump Jive.

The only thing to do after all that was to head out in search of a glass of bourbon or two.          

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